The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Classes in Florida Public Schools

A report by People For the American Way Foundation

Table of Contents

Update to the Second Printing

This report details widespread, significant constitutional violations uncovered by People For the American Way Foundation in its year-long investigation into the teaching of “Bible History” classes in Florida’s public high schools. Our examination of the written instructional materials provided by the school districts themselves found that the courses were taught from a Christian, generally Fundamentalist Protestant, perspective. Typically, the courses presented the Bible as a history textbook, assumed that students were Christian, and used the Bible to promote Christian faith formation.

On January 13, 2000, the day that this report was published, we delivered it to Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher, along with letters urging the state to drop the two “Bible History” courses from the State’s approved course list. We also sent the report to the superintendents of all the school districts that were the subject of our investigation with a letter urging them to stop their unconstitutional instruction.

Our report and request prompted the Florida Department of Education to conduct its own investigation. On March 16, 2000, the Department of Education announced that it was dropping both “Bible History” courses from the approved course list, as we had recommended, and adopting two entirely new courses entitled “Introduction to the Bible I” and “Introduction to the Bible II,” effective at the beginning of the 200-2001 school year. The Department also released course descriptions and learning objectives for the new courses. (Copies are printed in the Appendix.) In addition, the Department recognized, as our report had, that proper teacher training and appropriate instructional materials are necessary for a school district to teach about the Bible constitutionally, and stated its intent to assist school districts in this regard.

Florida’s new courses take a fundamentally different approach to teaching about the Bible than the courses they replace. If schools properly implement this new approach, the constitutional problems that our investigation uncovered should be resolved. The new courses approach the Bible from a literary perspective, not as historical fact. In addition, the new courses recognize that different religious groups interpret the Bible differently. The courses, at least on paper, are academic, secular courses, which was not true of the Sunday school-style “Bible History” courses our investigation had found.

The state has given the school districts a workable blueprint; if they follow it, they should be able to construct educationally sound courses that comply with the Constitution. This will require those school districts that have taught the “Bible History” courses to drop them and to change completely their curricula, their methodology, and their instructional materials.

People For the American Way Foundation believes that the best way for public schools to teach about the Bible is through courses in world religions that do not focus exclusively on the biblical religions but instead give students a more comprehensive education better suited to our diverse world. However, if a school district in Florida wants to teach a Bible-focused course, it should carefully follow the state’s newly prescribed framework. We will be monitoring the implementation of these new courses.

In the meantime, this report remains a useful tool for demonstrating the problems inherent in efforts now underway in other states and local school districts to promote improper “Bible History” courses. There is a right way, and a wrong way, to teach about the Bible in public schools. This report presents a portrait of school districts that have gone about it in the wrong way, to the great detriment of their students and their communities. We hope that other states and communities will learn from this and not make the same mistakes.

Introduction

In recent years, in Florida and across the country, there has been increasing controversy over religion in public schools, including whether and how students may be taught about the Bible.1 Most authorities agree that teaching students about religion is part of a good education. On the other hand, teaching religion, in the sense of proselytizing or attempting to inculcate students in the beliefs of a particular faith, or teaching religious subjects from a sectarian viewpoint, is unsound public education. Such instruction also violates the constitutional requirement that public schools must remain neutral toward religion and cannot endorse religion generally or any particular faith specifically.

People For the American Way Foundation strongly supports teaching students about religion, including the role that religion has played in history. Such instruction can and does take place in any number of classes, such as courses in comparative religion, the history of religion, world history, and American history. As the courts have made clear, however, there is a right way, and a wrong way, for public schools to present the subject of religion and related topics. When it comes to the Bible, the United States Supreme Court has held that public schools may teach students about the Bible, as long as such teaching is presented "objectively as part of a secular program of education." School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963).

However, as revealed by cases in which the courts have found legal problems with "Bible" courses in public schools, a number of school districts around the country have ignored the Court's admonition.2 They have taught the Bible to their students not from an objective perspective as part of a truly academic and secular course, but from a religious perspective, generally from a particular sectarian perspective of Christianity. In such courses, the Bible is typically presented as factually true and students are required to engage in exercises more appropriate for a Sunday school than a public school, including exercises that emphasize rote memorization rather than critical thinking or analysis skills.

Unfortunately, as this report discusses, a significant number of Florida school districts teach such unconstitutional classes. The state of Florida permits its public high schools to offer two semester-long "Social Studies" courses entitled "Bible History: Old Testament" and "Bible History: New Testament." The Florida Department of Education has adopted a short "course description" for each, leaving it up to local school districts to develop their own curricula.3 In practice, this has turned out to be a recipe for disaster. As this report documents, the school districts teaching the "Bible History" courses are, with minor exceptions, doing so in a manner that violates the Constitution and the rights of their citizens. This conduct also deprives their students of sound academic instruction about the Bible, including instruction that would expose them to more than one particular sectarian view.

Background: Lee County School District, Florida

The situation in Florida first attracted national attention in 1997, when a sharply divided school board in Lee County voted to adopt curricula for "Bible History" courses to be offered in the local high schools under the state's course descriptions. The board's action followed more than a year of controversy within the community during which a school-district-appointed Bible Curriculum Committee met repeatedly in an effort to develop curricula for new courses entitled "Bible History: Old Testament" and "Bible History: New Testament" to be offered in the Lee County high schools.

The controversy between those who advocated what was plainly a Christian Bible course and those who urged an objective, constitutional approach escalated and created great division within the community. According to press accounts, one of the Bible Curriculum Committee members characterized those on the Committee who he felt were not enthusiastic supporters of the course as "Jews ... and others who you wondered if they had any religion at all." (The Resurrection of "the Oldest Textbook," Washington Post, June 15, 1997.)

He was also quoted as saying "they should appoint Christians to review a Christian curriculum. I wondered from the very beginning why Jews and others, I don't know what they were, were on the committee." (Remarks Anger Lee County Jews, Fort Myers News-Press, June 30, 1997.) Many local residents, as well as People For the American Way Foundation, urged the school board to reject an improper sectarian approach and instead adopt a constitutionally and educationally sound curriculum for instruction about the Bible. The "Old Testament" curriculum ultimately adopted by the Committee majority for recommendation to the school board was based in part on a curriculum from a private, Religious Right-affiliated organization called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS).

The Committee majority adopted the NCBCPS "New Testament" curriculum without change. The curricula impermissibly used the Bible as a history textbook, and presented the Bible from the sectarian perspective of Christianity. The school district's own lawyers recommended against adopting the "New Testament" curriculum, and had concerns about the "Old Testament" curriculum as well. Nonetheless, the school board majority adopted the curricula.4

People For the American Way Foundation attorneys, along with the Florida law firm of Steel, Hector & Davis and the Florida ACLU, then sued the school district in federal court on behalf of Lee County parents and other local citizens challenging the unconstitutional curricula. In ruling on the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction to halt the teaching of the curricula pending a final ruling on the merits, the court ordered that the "New Testament" curriculum could not be taught at all, and that the "Old Testament" curriculum could be taught but with strict monitoring of the classes. Gibson v. Lee County School Board, 1 F. Supp. 2d 1426 (M.D. Fla. 1998).

After this ruling, the school board decided to settle the case by dropping the objectionable curricula and substituting a neutral, academic curriculum that does not present the Bible as fact or from a sectarian perspective. That curriculum uses as the course text An Introduction to the Bible, by James R. Beasley, et al., and requires students to read appropriate portions of the text in conjunction with the covered topics.5 The course is divided into two parts, An Introduction to the Bible, Parts I and II, the first being a prerequisite to the second. In addition, students who take the course are required to take a world history or comparative religion course before graduation.

How this Report Came About

Based on information developed in the Lee County case about the existence of the Florida "Bible History" courses, we obtained from the Florida Department of Education the names of those of the state's 67 school districts that had taught the "Bible History" courses during the prior three academic years: 1996-97, 1997-98, and 1998-99.6 According to the state, during the past three school years, the following 14 school districts (not including Lee County) taught either or both semesters of "Bible History" during one or more of those school years: Clay County, Columbia County, Escambia County, Gulf County, Hillsborough County, Indian River County, Levy County, Madison County, Marion County, Okaloosa County, Polk County, Santa Rosa County, Taylor County, and Walton County.7

In 1998, we sent requests under the Florida Public Records Act to each of the school districts that had taught the "Bible History" courses during the prior two years.8 These requests sought copies of all curricular and other instructional materials used in connection with these classes. The requests were written broadly to cover all written materials used in the courses, including lesson plans, exams, reading lists and assignments, as well as identification of all books, videos and similar instructional materials, and everything else given to or shown to students. These materials provide written evidence of the course content and the nature of how the courses are taught. Exams, in particular, provide a good indication of what is taught in a course, since they reveal not only the course content but also what specific aspects of that content the teacher considers most important and wants to be sure the students learn.

Our Findings

Based on the instructional materials provided by the schools districts, all 14 of these school districts appear to be violating the Constitution by the manner in which at least some of the "Bible History" courses are taught.9 While some problems are unique to particular school districts, the majority are common to most or all of them. In Part Two of this report, we have included a description of each school district's classes based on our review of the instructional materials that the school districts themselves provided to us.10 The primary constitutional problems common to most of the school districts include the following:

  • The courses are framed and taught from Christian perspectives.

The "Bible History" courses in virtually all of the school districts are called "Bible History: Old Testament" and "Bible History: New Testament" or a variation on those words.11 These are Christian terms for the Bible, and framing the courses solely in these terms - without using the term "Hebrew Scriptures" or "Hebrew Bible" - presents them at the very outset from a purely Christian perspective. As Bible scholar and teacher T.W. Lewis, III testified in the Lee County case, "Old Testament" is a Christian term, while "Hebrew Scriptures" is the term "commonly accepted by scholars."12

Despite the Supreme Court's admonition that the Bible must be taught about "objectively," it appears that most, if not all, of the Florida school districts teaching the "Bible History" courses are doing so not objectively, but from a Christian perspective. This perspective extends beyond the titles to the course content, which typically presents the Bible according to particular Christian (usually Protestant) interpretations.

For example, it is common in the instructional materials to find the story of Adam and Eve referred to as "the Fall of Man," and the serpent in that story referred to as "Satan" - Christian interpretations of Genesis 3 that are not shared by other faiths. The Bible classes at issue in the Herdahl case also described Genesis 3 as "the Fall of Man." As Professor Lewis testified in that case, "That phrase, however, does not appear anywhere in the Bible; it is a purely theological, Christian interpretation of the story - further evidence of the religious nature of the instruction. Moreover, Jews, who also regard the Book of Genesis as religious scripture, do not interpret the story of Adam and Eve in the same way."13 And, as Professor Lewis testified in Lee County, "the Serpent" of Genesis 3 is "interpreted in Christian faith, but not Jewish faith, as Satan."14

Likewise, a number of the Florida school districts present the "Old" Testament as predictive of, or in light of, the "New" Testament. For example, an exam used in the Indian River County school district asks, "Where is a prophecy in the Old [T]estament about the birth of Jesus?" This is a purely Christian reading of the Bible, since Judaism does not recognize a "New" Testament, nor interpret the Hebrew Scriptures as predictive of it. And in some school districts (e.g., Escambia County), the course materials even use the oxymoronic phrase "Hebrew Old Testament."

Apart from the impermissible sectarian perspective of such courses, they present obstacles for those students who do not share that particular religious view. A Jewish student, for example, who is asked where the "Old Testament" contains a prophecy about the birth of Jesus would have obvious difficulty in answering such a question. As discussed below, many of the school districts appear to assume that all of the students taking these courses are Christian.

In many of the school districts, the students are required to study, if not memorize, the Ten Commandments. However, although the arrangement of the Ten Commandments is different among Christians and Jews (and among Christians as well), it does not appear that the students are made aware of this. In most instances, the course materials refer generally to "the Ten Commandments"; however, when the course materials do make clear which version of the Ten Commandments is taught (e.g., in Levy County), it is a Christian version.

The Christian perspective of these courses is typically a Protestant one. For example, these courses generally do not include certain books of the Bible that Catholics consider to be canon but Protestants do not. If these books are mentioned at all, they are described as the "Apocryphal Books" and not as scripture. For example, a curriculum that has been used in Santa Rosa County and in Escambia County calls these books "The Apocrypha" and describes them as "Intertestament Writings." In the Levy County school district, while students reportedly are permitted to use "biblical translations of their choice," that choice must be from "an original King James Translation" - a Protestant version of the Bible. This would appear to exclude Bibles recognized by religious traditions other than Protestantism, e.g., the New American Bible accepted by Catholics, which has 73 books, while the King James Version has 66.15

The problems inherent in this sectarian approach are compounded by the fact that the teachers generally do not appear to inform the students that they are learning only one particular religious interpretation of the biblical text (e.g., that "the Fall of Man" is a Christian reading of the Bible). Such non-objective instruction deprives the students of a truly meaningful, academic education in which they would be exposed to, among other things, the rich and diverse interpretations of the Bible.

  • The Bible is used as a history textbook.

As the courts have recognized, " 'the Bible is a religious book, or, more accurately stated, a collection of religious books and writings which have been selected and assembled for the religious teachings and messages therein conveyed ... Thus, to simply read the Bible without selectivity is to read a religious book and to teach the Bible literally without interpretation is to convey a religious message or teach a religious lesson.' " Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F. Supp. 582, 596 (N.D. Miss. 1996) (quoting Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133, 149 (E.D. Tenn. 1979)). In addition, the courts have also recognized that "much of the Bible is not capable of historic verification (such as divine creation, the 'pre-existence' of Jesus, Jesus' miracles and the resurrection), and can only be accepted as a matter of faith and religious belief." Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 596.

Teaching this biblical content as true in a public school improperly crosses the line of neutrality and objectivity by endorsing religion and inculcating students in religious beliefs.

For these reasons, the courts have held that the Bible cannot be taught in a public school "as if [it] were actual literal history." Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 600. See also Lee County, 1 F. Supp. 2d at 1434 ("[t]his Court ... finds it difficult to conceive how the account of the resurrection or of miracles could be taught as secular history"). Accordingly, the court in Herdahl ordered that students, in a "Bible" course purportedly about ancient Near East history, "must be assigned reading from non-biblical sources of ancient Middle East history." Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 600.16

Nonetheless, most of the Florida school districts teaching the "Bible History" courses appear to be using the Bible as though it were a history textbook and presenting the Bible as an historical record. The course title itself, "Bible History," suggests from the outset to students that they will be learning what happened in the past - that is, learning history - by reading the Bible. This is further underscored by the Florida Department of Education's placement of these courses in the "Social Studies" group entitled "World and Eastern Hemispheric Histories," which also includes such high school courses as "World History," "African History," "British History," and "European History."17

In a number of the school districts, the only "textbook" used in these courses is the Bible, sometimes in combination with secondary Bible resources (such as a Bible handbook). Often, these secondary resources are not standard academic texts published for public school use but rather products of religious publishing houses. For example, at Keystone Heights High School in Clay County, the course "text" is the Bible, with Halley's Bible Handbook listed as a "resource." Halley's is published by Zondervan Publishing House, which, according to its web site, is a "member of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association" and "an international Christian communications company ... dedicated to meeting the needs of people with resources that glorify Jesus Christ and promote biblical principles."18 Generally, there is no indication that the students are assigned reading from any non-biblical sources of history.

The presentation of the Bible as an historical record is routinely confirmed by the written instructional materials. For example, the "Santa Rosa County Curriculum" that is also used in Escambia County describes Genesis 1-11 as the "Early history of man," and refers to "Creation" and "Flood" as "historical event[s]." Course materials from Plant City High School in Hillsborough County call the Bible "the most reliable source for history we have." In the Walton County school district, the Gospels are described as giving "a complete picture of Jesus' life and teaching."

Some schools appear to teach the Bible content by prefacing it with "according to the Bible," or "the Bible says." Such qualifications, however, do not render a history course based on the Bible constitutional. Indeed, a claim that they do was specifically rejected by the court in Herdahl. As the court explained, "the daily teaching of the content of a book of religious proclamation does not become secular instruction merely by informing students that the content is only what the Bible says; indeed, for many students, that may well heighten the religious effect of the course." Herdahl, 933 F. Supp. at 596-97.

  • Students are assumed to be Christian and the Bible is taught accordingly.

A number of school districts appear to assume that only Christian students would take the "Bible History" courses. A review of the instructional materials suggests an assumption by these school districts that the teachers and students are of the same (Christian) faith, with the Bible approached accordingly, rather than in an objective and secular manner.

One of the most striking examples is from the Columbia County school district, where students at Columbia High School are asked the following exam question:

    "If you had a Jewish friend who wanted to know if Jesus might be the expectant [sic] Messiah, which book [of the Gospels] would you give him?"

Similar examples exist in other school districts:

    "Compose an explanation of who Jesus is for someone who has never heard of Him."

    (Final exam question at Madison County High School, Madison County)

    "Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?"

    (Exam question concerning I Corinthians used at both Vanguard High School in Marion County and Williston High School in Levy County)

    "What is Jesus Christ's relationship to God, to creation, and to you?"

    (Question asked of students at Niceville High School in Okaloosa County; emphasis added.)

    "Who, according to Jesus, is the father of the Jews? The devil."

    (Lesson used in Levy County on John 8)

Clearly, these lessons and exam questions not only reinforce some Christian faiths, they would be problematic for students who are not Christians.

In the Levy County school district, students are directed to bring a Bible "from home," and further told that they "may use biblical translations of their choice as long [as] it is from an original King James Translation." (Emphasis added.) Not only does this appear to exclude Bibles not recognized by Protestants, it also assumes that all students have a Bible at home and, particularly, that they have the Protestant Bible in their homes.

In some school districts, the use of the first person plural in referring to "our" Bible or how "we" interpret the Bible also underscores the assumption of religious homogeneity and the lack of an objective approach to the courses. For example, the lessons plans at Port St. Joe High School in Gulf County call for the teacher to discuss "[h]ow we got our Bible."

Similarly, an exam question in Orange Park High School in Clay County asks, "Five great sermons of our Lord are recorded in: (a) Matthew (b) Mark (c) Luke (d) John." At Mulberry High School in Polk County, one exam question asks students, "How do we believe Peter died?" At Columbia High School in Columbia County, students are asked, "What was the location of Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac and why do we believe he went to that location?" And at Williston High School in Levy County, the New Testament exams ask such questions as, "What reason does Jesus give for why we should not judge others?"19

The absence of an objective and secular approach to the courses also manifests itself in exam questions and answers that impermissibly depend upon and make assumptions about the students' own (presumably Christian) religious beliefs. For example, at Niceville High School in Okaloosa County, students are asked, "Do you think Satan took Jesus literally and physically to the temple and the mountain? Why or why not?"

At Bartow High School in Polk County, students are required to "[p]ut yourself in the shoes of Cain and tell me if you would do the same as him [sic] or different than him [sic] and why." Similarly, at Middleburg High School in Clay County, students are asked, "Is it important to have faith in a religion?"20

At Port St. Joe High School in Gulf County, students are asked whether the following is "true or false:" "The Old Testament prophecies were not fulfilled in the New Testament." The answer to this question, of course, is a matter of religious faith, not fact. Similarly, at Walton High School in Walton County, students are asked, "What eight aspects of Christ's life are prophesied in Isaiah?" - which is a book of the Hebrew Scriptures. This question likewise assumes the Christian belief that the Hebrew Scriptures foretell parts of the New Testament. In fact, there really are no "correct" answers to such questions; rather, the answers depend entirely on the particular sectarian perspective and interpretation that one brings to the Bible.

  • The Bible is used to promote Christian faith formation and religious values and lessons.

While public school students may be taught about the different beliefs of different religious groups, a public school cannot proselytize to its students or train them in a particular religion. Likewise, while students may learn about civic values and be taught that religious groups believe in certain values as a matter of their religious faith, they may not be encouraged to adopt such values as a matter of faith or because they are found in the Bible. Nonetheless, some of the school districts teaching the "Bible History" courses appear to be using the Bible as a basis for Christian faith formation and life lessons, which is religious teaching, not secular instruction.

For example, in the Indian River County school district, students taking the "Bible History" course have been required to engage in "challenging group and individual work to figure out what the parables [of Jesus] are telling us today," and to explain, "Why do you think God says to love your enemies?" At Madison County High School, the "New Testament" final exam asks students to write an essay, "[u]sing Scripture reference to support [their] thoughts," about each of the following topics: "God's Plan For The Family; Living A Victorious Life In The World Which Is So Dark; and God's Directions For Righteous Living." And course materials used in the Levy County school district state in the "study guide" for Joshua: "God is not content with our doing what is right some of the time. He wants us to do what is right all the time. We are under his orders to eliminate any thoughts, practices, or possessions that hinder our devotion to him."

At Middleburg High School in Clay County, students are given "one section of the Sermon on the Mount" every other week during the "New Testament" semester (e.g., "Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God") and required to write an essay in which they answer the questions: "How is it relative [sic] to their life? [and] How is it relative [sic] to the world we live in?" During the "Old Testament" semester, students are given "one Commandment" every other week (e.g., "You shall have no other gods before me") and required to write an essay discussing "How is the Commandment relative [sic] to you and your life? [and] How is the Commandment relative [sic] to the world we live in?" And at Columbia High School in Columbia County, students are asked this exam question: "We can see in the Temptation Story of the 3rd Chapter of Genesis that we of the 20th Century haven't changed much from the days of Adam and Eve. What stages in the Temptation and Fall of Man do we still find ourselves [in] today?"

Such instruction is constitutionally problematic in public schools. As the court held in Herdahl, "to inculcate students ... into the beliefs and moral code of fundamentalist Christianity [is] an admirable goal perhaps for some private citizens or for a private religious school, but a forbidden one for the government." 933 F. Supp. at 595.21

  • Sunday-school and other religious training exercises are used to indoctrinate students in Bible content.

Many of the school districts require their students to engage in the type of rote memorization of the Bible that one would find in a Sunday school, or to engage in other Sunday-school type activities clearly intended to inculcate students in Bible content. For instance, some school districts require students to memorize the names of the 27 books of the "New Testament," in order. At Walton High School in Walton County, one of the exams requires students to identify, "from memory - all Old Testament books with the appropriate divisions." Some school districts require students to be able to identify the source (Bible book, chapter and verse) of specified Bible quotes. At Vanguard High School in Marion County, some exams require students to find specified Bible verses and then "copy them in full" from their Bibles.

And in some school districts, the teacher uses games or puzzles to further students' memorization of Bible content. For example, at Port St. Joe High School in Gulf County, the students "Play Bingo w/Gospels," and the teacher also uses seemingly juvenile puzzles requiring regurgitation of Bible content. These exercises also do not seem age-appropriate for high school students, another indication that their purpose is not objective or secular, but to inculcate students in the content of the Christian Bible.

Similar exercises were required of students in the Lee County case. That school district's New Testament curriculum, for example, called for the students "to memorize 'the order of the books of the New Testament' (27 total) as well as to memorize 'the Beatitudes and/or Similitudes (e.g., the pronouncement of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount that 'Blessed are the merciful...')." Declaration of Professor T.W. Lewis, III, at 9. According to Professor Lewis, "[i]n my opinion, there is no legitimate pedagogic purpose to such rote memorization in a secular history class. These tasks are typical of what children do in Sunday school, and are a means of further inculcating children in the Christian Bible." Id., at 9-10.

Conclusions and Recommendations

School districts across the state of Florida are violating the Constitution by the manner in which they are teaching the "Bible History" courses. Their actions contravene the separation of church and state and misuse public funds to advance religion and support sectarian education. In addition, these courses deprive students of the well-rounded, academic education to which they are entitled, and deny them access to the richness that a truly objective study of the Bible would give them. These problems can and should be addressed promptly at the state and local levels:

  • Recommendations for the Florida Department of Education

The presence of the "Bible History" courses on the state-approved course list, the Christian course titles, the lack of adequate guidance in the state's course descriptions, and the problematic "Bible History" title have proved to be an open invitation to local school districts to violate the Constitution under the guise of teaching state-sanctioned courses. Given the information documented in this report, the state Department of Education should step in and remove the "Bible History" courses as currently configured from the state's course list.

Of course, this does not mean that a school district may not teach students about the Bible. The Bible may be studied as a work of literature, and students may also learn about the Bible in comparative religion classes, world religion classes, and similar courses. The Florida Department of Education can and should encourage local districts to use such approaches. But the "Bible History" approach that has been followed in Florida has shown itself to be unworkable and should be discontinued.

  • Recommendations for the local school districts

Those school districts that are teaching the "Bible History" courses, and that are doing so in violation of the Constitution, are exposing themselves to costly and needless litigation.22 They should not wait to be sued, nor wait for the state Department of Education to act. They should revise their courses immediately to comply with the Constitution.23 In developing proper curricula, they should be guided by the case law, and first and foremost by the Supreme Court's admonition that the Bible can only be taught about in a public school "objectively as part of a secular program of education." This means, among other things, that the Bible cannot be taught about from a sectarian perspective, that it cannot be used as a basis for faith formation, and that the instruction cannot be premised upon an assumption about the religious beliefs of the students. If a course is properly designed - educationally as well as legally - any student should feel comfortable taking it.

For purposes of devising proper curricula, we recommend to these school districts "The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide" (hereafter "The Bible & Public Schools"), recently published by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center and the National Bible Association, and endorsed by a diverse group of educational, religious and religious-liberty organizations, including the Christian Legal Society, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Council on Islamic Education, the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and People For the American Way Foundation. This "common ground" guide is intended to assist public school officials in developing proper ways to teach students about the Bible, and also points out the educational and legal problems with particular approaches, including the "Bible History" approach.24

The evidence in this report shows the extreme difficulty - if not impossibility - at the high school level of using a "Bible History" approach to teach students about the Bible. Public schools may not present the Bible to students as though it were a history textbook. They may not use it to teach lessons in faith formation, or present it solely from one sectarian perspective. For all of these reasons, and in light of the problems discussed above, public schools are on much firmer constitutional ground if they teach students about the Bible in literature classes in which the Bible is studied as a literary text. As stated in The Bible & Public Schools:

"[M]ost public schools that have offered a Bible elective have found it safer and more age-appropriate to use the Bible literature approach ... Schools must keep in mind that the Bible is seen by millions of Jews and Christians as scripture. For adherents of these faiths, the Bible makes sense of events in terms of God's purposes and actions. This means that the Bible may not be treated as a history textbook by public-school teachers but must be studied by examining a variety of perspectives - religious and non-religious - on the meaning and significance of the biblical account. The Bible & Public Schools, at 8 (additional emphasis added)."

And, again, the Bible may also be taught about in broader courses, such as courses in comparative religion or the history of religion.

Teacher training is also important when dealing with the Bible in public schools. Teachers should have an educational background in the academic study of religion and be competent to teach about the Bible objectively and not from a sectarian perspective.25 Clearly, this requires a teacher to know much more than his or her own religious interpretation of the Bible. Obviously, we could not tell from the written course materials the nature of the training and education that the particular teachers in these school districts have received. However, the non-objective, sectarian instruction that we have documented does raise questions about the adequacy of that training. A school should ensure that teachers are fully and properly qualified to teach about the Bible in accordance with the Constitution before it offers such instruction.26

Like all public school districts, the school districts that are the subject of this report owe their students a sound education. And they owe their citizens - who pay for the public schools - instruction that complies with the Constitution. The "Bible History" courses in the state of Florida fall short on both counts.

Endnotes

1 There is, of course, no single “Bible,” but rather different versions and translations that are
considered to be scripture by different religious groups. In this report, we use “the Bible” to
refer to all versions. (This is generally not the case, however, in the Florida public school
courses that are the subject of this report, where “the Bible” typically means the Bible as recognized
by Christians.)

2 See Hall v. Board of Commissioners of Conecuh County, 656 F.2d 999 (5th Cir. 1981); Gibson v.
Lee County School Board, 1 F. Supp. 2d 1426 (M.D. Fla. 1998); Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School
District, 933 F. Supp. 582 (N.D. Miss. 1996); Doe v. Human, 725 F. Supp. 1503 (W.D. Ark. 1989),
aff’d without opinion, 923 F.2d 857 (8th Cir. 1990), cert. denied, 499 U.S. 922 (1991); Crockett v.

Sorenson, 568 F. Supp. 1422 (W.D. Va. 1983); Wiley v. Franklin, 468 F. Supp. 133 (E.D. Tenn.
1979), supp. op., 474 F. Supp. 525 (E.D. Tenn. 1979), supp. op., 497 F. Supp. 390 (E.D. Tenn.
1980); Vaughn v. Reed, 313 F. Supp. 431 (W.D. Va. 1970).

3 A copy of the state’s course descriptions for each of the “Bible History” courses is included
as an appendix to this report, and is also available on the Florida Department of Education’s
web site, http://www.firn.edu/doe (visited Aug. 23, 1999).

4 The NCBCPS attempts to promote its curricula to school districts around the country, and in
1998 claimed that no fewer than 53 school districts in 22 states had approved them. See
A ffidavit of Elizabeth Ridenour, ¶ 5 (Jan. 2, 1998), filed in support of NCBCPS’s memorandum in
opposition to Plaintiffs’ Motion for a Pre l i m i n a ry Injunction in Gibson v. Lee County School
B o a rd , 1 F. Supp. 2d 1426 (M.D. Fla. 1998). According to the president of the NCBCPS, the org a n ization
is “trying to expose kids to the biblical Christian worldview.” NCBCPS President Elizabeth
Ridenour on Truths That Tr a n s f o rm radio program (Sept. 14, 1995).
5 A copy of the curriculum is available from People For the American Way Foundation. James R.
Beasley is a former professor in the Religious Studies Department of Stetson University in
DeLand, Florida.
6 The state maintains this public information, by semester and school district, for each of the
state-approved high school courses, along with the number of students enrolled in each

course per district for each semester.

7 A 15th school district, Duval County, taught the “Bible History: New Testament” course during
the fall of the 1996-97 school year, but has not taught either “Bible History” course since then
For this reason, and because the school district reported that it no longer had any instructional
materials for these courses, we have not included it in this report.

8 After the close of the 1998-99 school year, we sent the same requests to those school districts
that had taught the classes only during that year but not in the prior two years. We also confirmed in writing with the school districts that had taught the classes in both 1997-98 and 1998-99
that the courses were taught the same way using the same materials during both years.

9 Although problems exist in all of the school districts, it appears from the instructional materials that the teacher at Chamberlain High School in the Hillsborough County school district (one of two schools in that district teaching its new “History of the Bible” course) has had the most
success in an effort to approach the course in an objective manner. The instructional materials used in that school, though not free from all problems, do reflect a conscious attempt to differentiate between the Bible as history and teaching about the Bible. See Part Two, Hillsborough County School District. We note as a general matter as to all of the school districts that while many of the materials (such as exams, ssignments, course outlines and lesson plans) presumably were given to the students or used directly in instructing them, it is not possible to determine precisely how and to what extent other materials (such as Bible study guides andexcerpts from other Bible-related secondary resources) were shared with the students.

10 The instructional materials were analyzed by Judith E. Schaeffer and Elliot M. Mincberg, the Deputy Legal Director and Legal Director, respectively, of People For the American Way Foundation. Ms. Schaeffer and Mr. Mincberg were co-counsel to the plaintiffs in the Herdahl
and Lee County Bible-class cases.

11 Even in Hillsborough County, which calls its one-semester course “History of the Bible,” the
course outline used in one of its high schools still refers to the “Old Testament.”
12 Declaration of Professor T.W. Lewis, III, at 4, Exhibit 1 in support of Plaintiffs’ Motion for a
Preliminary Injunction, filed Dec. 12, 1997 in Gibson v. Lee County School Board, 1 F. Supp. 2d

1426 (M.D. Fla. 1998). (Professor Lewis, an Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Millsaps
College in Jackson, Mississippi, had previously testified in the Herdahl case concerning the
Bible and the use of the Bible in public school classes and curricula and was accepted by the
court as an expert witness in those areas. Professor Lewis is an ordained United Methodist
Minister with a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies and a Bachelor of Divinity degree who taught biblical
studies and related subjects in religion for more than 30 years at the college level. In addition,
Professor Lewis has regularly taught Sunday school and vacation Bible school, and has
been employed as a pastor.)

13 Report of Professor T.W. Lewis, III, at 20, Exhibit 15 in support of Plaintiff’s Motion for

Summary Judgment, filed Dec. 13, 1995 in Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, 933 F.
Supp. 582 (N.D. Miss. 1996).

14 Declaration of Professor T.W. Lewis, III, at 8.

15 See http://www.nccbuscc.org/nab/bible/index.htm (Oct. 21, 1999). It should also be noted
that Protestants and Catholics arrange the Ten Commandments differently. As the United
States Catholic Conference explains, “[t]raditionally among Catholics Exodus 20:1-6 is considered
as only one commandment, and Exodus 20:17 as two.” See
http://www.nccbuscc.org/nab/bible/exodus/exodus20.htm (Oct. 21, 1999). In those Florida
school districts where the instructional materials reveal the specific arrangement of the Ten

Commandments studied (e.g., Levy County), it is the Protestant version.
16 As Professor Lewis testified in Lee County, “the Bible is uniquely unsuited to be used as
though it were a secular history textbook, as a source for teaching public school students
about past events.” Declaration of Professor T.W. Lewis, III, at 4-5.

17 See http://www.firn.edu/doe (Oct. 13,1999).

18 See http://www.zondervan.com/us.htm (Oct. 19, 1999).

19 All emphasis in these examples added.

20 The course materials from the school districts do not explain how answers to these sorts of
questions are graded.

21 See also Doe v. Human, 725 F. Supp. at 1506 (holding Bible class to be unconstitutional where“many of the songs and parables taught in the class endorse Christianity, and have very little,
if any, secular effect”).

22 Some of the school districts defensively pointed out to us that their “Bible History” courses
are electives, apparently as though that should excuse any constitutional violation. In fact,
and as the Supreme Court has made clear, the voluntariness of student participation “furnishes
no defense to a claim of unconstitutionality under the Establishment Clause.”

Schempp, 374 U.S. at 225. Indeed, the high school Bible classes at issue in Lee County and
Herdahl were, like these Florida classes, also electives.

23 Some of the school districts may not be teaching the “Bible History” courses this school year,
1999-2000. For example, the Indian River County school district informed us that it is not teaching
these courses in either its regular high schools or its charter high school this year.

24 The Bible & Public Schools is available from the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia, and is
also reprinted on its web site, http://www.freedomforum.org.

25 See The Bible & Public Schools, at 6-7.

26 Id. at 6 (“Electives in biblical studies should only be offered if there are teachers academically competent to teach them”).

Appendix - Old Courses

1992

Florida Department of Education
Course Description -- Grades 9-12, Adult
Subject Area: Social Studies
Course Number: 2109390
Course Title: Bible History: Old Testament
Credit: 0.5

Major concepts/content.

Students acquire an understanding of the Bible as a historical document through an overview of significant events that have affected the people of the Old Testament.

The content should include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • maps and spatial relationships
  • process of the canonization of the Bible
  • role of the Bible in the development of western and world culture
  • Bible as an historical document
  • archaeological evidence and Biblical studies
  • sequencing of the development of nations

Special Note. None

C. Course Requirements.

After successfully completing this course, the student will:

  1. Understand and appreciate the relationships between past and present.
  2. Recognize the importance of physical and cultural geography on the development of Biblical peoples.
  3. Identity the major individuals, events and characteristics of the Old Testament period.
  4. Recognize that there are multiple interpretations of any historical event.
  5. Identify the major belief systems (political, economic, and social) and their effects on those events chronicled in the Old Testament.
  6. Recognize how international and dynastic changes have impacted historical development.
  7. Apply research, study, critical-thinking and decision-making skills and demonstrate the use of new and emerging technology in problem solving

_________________________________

1992

Florida Department of Education
Course Description -- Grades 9-12, Adult
Subject Area: Social Studies
Course Number: 2109400
Course Title: Bible History: New Testament
Credit: 0.5

Major concepts/content.

Students understand the relationship between historical events and their interpretations and the development of religious and ethical beliefs as described in the New Testament. Students assess the historical development to better understand the correlation between history and the New Testament.

The content should include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • maps and spatial relationships
  • lands, people and institutions described in the Biblical writing
  • use of the Bible as an historical document
  • archaeological evidence and Biblical studies
  • development of the early institution of the Church through the Protestant Reformation
  • conflicts with other cultures in the region

Special Note. None


C. Course Requirements.

After successfully completing this course, the student will:

  1. Understand and appreciate the relationships between past and present.
  2. Understand the significance of physical and cultural geography on the development of Biblical peoples.
  3. Identify major individuals, events and characteristics in the New Testament period.
  4. Recognize that these [sic] are multiple interpretations of any historical event.
  5. Understand the characteristics and development of New Testament cultures.
  6. Apply research, study, critical-thinking and decision-making skills and demonstrate the use of new and emerging technology in problem solving

Appendix - New Courses

2000

Florida Department of Education
Course Description – Grades 9-12, Adult
Subject Area: Humanities
Course Number: 0900400
Course Title: Introduction to the Bible I
Credit: 0.5

Major concepts/content.

Students will acquire a critical appreciation of the literature of the ancient Israelite community which came to be held as sacred scripture by the Jewish and Christian religious communities. In addition to learning about the development of the major ideas and variety of literary forms of this literature in its ancient historical and cultural contexts, students will also gain an understanding of the impact of this literature on Western culture by studying how it has been interpreted in diverse Jewish and Christian communities and more generally Western literature, art, music, and thought.

  • A survey of the various types of literature found in the Bible (including the "Apocrypha" or "Deuterocanonical" writings).
  • Literary analysis of the chief characters, structures and plots found in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible.
  • Literary analysis of the distinctive features and literary forms of biblical poetry.
  • Analysis of the prophetic literature of the Hebrew Bible within the context of the social and political life of the ancient Israelite communities to which it was addressed.
  • The historical and cultural contexts of biblical literature in the ancient Israelite community and the ancient Near East generally.
  • The development of the chief themes of biblical literature as they were understood by the ancient Israelite community.
  • Comparison of the literary forms and religious and cultural concepts found in the Bible with similar forms and ideas found in non-Israelite ancient Near Eastern literature.
  • The early stages of the formation of biblical literature and the process by which the diverse writings found in the Bible came to be regarded as sacred scripture by various Jewish and Christian communities ("canonization").
  • The process of transmission of the biblical texts in their original languages and the variety of translations produced by the Jewish and Christian communities from antiquity to the present.
  • The history of the interpretation of the Bible in the Jewish and Christian communities.
  • The variety of methods used in the academic study of the history and literature of ancient Israel.
  • The impact of the Bible on Western art, music, literature and thought.

Special Note:

Section 233.062, Florida Statutes provides school boards the authority to "instill in the public schools in the district a secular program of education, including, but not limited to, and objective study of the Bible and of religion." A variety of instructional materials should be used to allow for discussion of the different interpretations of the Bible and the different theories of how the Bible came to be.

Course Requirements.

After successfully completing the course, the student will:

  • Be able to identify the variety of literary genres found in the Bible.
  • Become familiar with the chief characters and narratives found in the Bible.
  • Develop the skills necessary for interpreting the Bible as a literary document.
  • Learn how to understand the biblical writings within the context of the history and culture of ancient Israel and of the non-Israelite peoples of the ancient Near East.
  • Become acquainted with some of the variety of the ways the Bible has been interpreted by Jewish and Christian religious communities, by other individuals and communities, and by scholars studying the history and literature of ancient Israel.
  • Become familiar with the methods used in the modern academic study of the Bible.
  • Gain some knowledge of how the texts of the biblical writings were transmitted, translated and gradually became recognized as authoritative by Jewish and Christian communities.
  • Become aware of the differences in the canons of Jews and various Christian communities.
  • Gain some understanding of the impact of the Bible on Western culture.

________________________________

2000

Florida Department of Education
Course Description, Grades 9-12, Adult
Subject Area: Humanities
Course Number: 0900410
Course Title: Introduction to the Bible II
Credit: 0.5

Major Concepts/Content.

Students will acquire a critical appreciation of New Testament literature in the context of the social and cultural history of early Christianity, ancient Judaism and the Graeco-Roman world. In addition to learning about the development of the major ideas and variety of literary forms of the New Testament in its ancient historical and cultural contexts, students will also gain an understanding of the impact of this literature on Western culture by studying how it has been interpreted in diverse Christian communities and in Western literature, art, music and thought.

The content should include, but not be limited to, the following:

  • A survey of the various types of literature found in the New Testament.
  • Literary analysis of the characters, narrative structure and plot of the gospels and Acts.
  • Comparison of the themes and structures of the four canonical gospels.
  • Traditional and modern scholarly discussions of the "Synoptic Problem."
  • An overview of Jewish history, literature and religion from the biblical period through the 1st century.
  • The literary characteristics, world view and social functions of apocalyptic literature.
  • The forms and function of early Christian letters.
  • The historical and cultural contexts of New Testament literature within the diverse worlds of early Christianity, ancient Judaism and Graeco-Roman history, society, religion, and philosophy.
  • The process by which the writings found in the New Testament cam to be regarded as sacred scripture by various Christian communities ("canonization").
  • The process of transmission of the biblical texts in their original languages and the variety of translations produced from antiquity to the present.
  • The variety of methods used in the academic study of the history and literature of early Christianity.
  • The impact of the New Testament on Western art, music, literature and thought.

Special Note:

Section 233.062, Florida Statutes provides school boards the authority to "instill in the public schools in the district a secular program of education, including, but not limited to, and objective study of the Bible and of religion." A variety of instructional materials should be used to allow for discussion of the different interpretations of the Bible and the different theories of how the Bible came to be.

Course Requirements.


After successfully completing the course, the student will:

  • Be able to identify the variety of literary genres found in the New Testament.
  • Become familiar with the chief characters and narratives found in the gospels and Acts.
  • Understand the literary and social features of Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature.
  • Understand the forms and functions of New Testament letters.
  • Develop the skills necessary for interpreting the New Testament as a literary document.
  • Learn how to understand the New Testament writings within the context of the history and culture of early Christianity, ancient Judaism and the Graeco-Roman world.
  • Become acquainted with some of the variety of the ways the New Testament has been interpreted by various Christian communities, by other individuals and communities, and by scholars studying the history and literature of early Christianity.
  • Become familiar with methods used in the modern academic study of the New Testament.
  • Gain some knowledge of how texts of the biblical writings were transmitted, translated and gradually became recognized as authoritative by various Christian communities.
  • Gain some understanding of the impact of the New Testament on Western culture.
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